In January 1953, when Eisenhower took office, not a single Republican member of the Eighty-third Congress had ever served with a Republican president. To Eisenhower it was as important to build solid links to Capitol Hill as to create a spirit of cooperation among his cabinet and staff. In particular, he cultivated Taft, who was an effective and loyal, if sometimes contentious, administration supporter, serving as Senate majority leader until shortly before his death in the summer of 1953.
The channels from president to Congress had to be numerous in the Eighty-third Congress and the three Democratic-controlled Congresses that followed. The close balance between the parties and the divisions within them made it necessary for bipartisan coalitions to be shaped to advance Eisenhower's legislative goals. His conservative economic policies received the backing of Taft Republicans and southern Democrats. In seeking to introduce moderate welfare reforms, he relied on the more liberal, mostly eastern members of his own party and on northern Democrats. His internationalist foreign policy programs—for example, extension of the reciprocal trade program and appropriation of foreign aid funds—drew support from the internationalist Republicans, who had been at the forefront in seeking his nomination, but they received more backing from Democrats than from members of their own party.
After Taft's death, Eisenhower developed a working relationship, but one that was less than reliable, with the next Senate Republican leader, the bellicose and politically inept William Knowland. Eisenhower worked officially with Knowland, but following his regular practice of carefully supplementing formal with informal organization, he found a variety of allies who unofficially made up for Know-land's shortcomings. Because bipartisanship was necessary to pass legislation but was controversial to supporters of each party, Eisenhower often met without public announcement in the residential quarters of the White House with the two pragmatic southerners who led the congressional Democrats, Senator Lyndon Johnson and Congressman Sam Rayburn, both of Texas.
Two of Eisenhower's initial policy efforts were in the area of national security. One was the short-run effort to bring the lingering Korean conflict to a close and the other the long-run aim of reconfiguring the nation's general national security posture. Ending the fighting in Korea was by no means simple. The truce talks had long been stalled, and the Chinese Communists and North Koreans were so well entrenched that even if pushing them back had been militarily and politically feasible, it would have been too costly in lives and money to contemplate. Hiding his hand from the American people and the Western allies, who would have undermined his actions by public protest, he leaked through channels friendly to the Chinese the message that he was prepared to use extreme measures (by implication, nuclear strikes) if a truce were not concluded. Since talks promptly resumed and a settlement was reached by July, Eisenhower felt his implied threat had worked; others have speculated that the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March may have set the process of accommodation in motion.
Eisenhower's more long-range efforts were to implement Joseph Dodge's efforts to reduce Truman's requests for the fiscal year beginning in June 1953 by $7.2 billion in expected expenditures. The major source of reduction was military spending. The strategy underlying Eisenhower's cut in defense spending came to be known as his administration's "New Look" defense policy. In contrast to the defense intellectuals who dominated strategic planning in the final years of the Truman administration, Eisenhower insisted that national security costs be systematically weighed against their economic effects on the nation. (For this reason, he made his secretary of the treasury and his budget director members of the National Security Council.) Overspending, Eisenhower maintained, was not an effective way of ensuring the nation's defense capacity. Rather, it was an unproductive waste and a self-defeating stimulus to inflation. But how could the government reduce its expenditures and maintain its commitment to contain Communism? (Much less, in the rhetoric Dulles used but never acted upon, rolling it back.) The answer was provided in the ominous-sounding phrase "massive retaliation." The United States would not commit itself to meet Communist expansion at every point where it occurred but rather would respond on its own terms, if necessary with "massive retaliatory power." An attack in an area where American and allied forces could not effectively be used might be responded to elsewhere. And the military could make up for its decreased military manpower by employing low-yield tactical nuclear weapons if necessary or, in dire circumstances, by striking the Soviet heart-land.
As a strategist—in the game of bridge as well as in military and political affairs—Eisenhower was aware of the dangers of bluffing. The nuclear component of the New Look was meant to be a deterrent to the adversary, not a response that would readily have been made. Eisenhower's congenital proclivity to play his cards close to his vest makes it impossible to say whether under any circumstance short of a total war he would in fact have used nuclear weapons if circumstances seemed to make that advantageous. His private communications, however, show that he was profoundly aware of the devastating consequences a nuclear war would bring, and he always left tactical ambiguities in those of his statements which implied the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
Typically the hard-line anti-Communist pronouncements of the Eisenhower presidency were made by Secretary of State Dulles, sometimes using phrases Eisenhower himself had drafted. Eisenhower concentrated on playing the contrasting role of peacemaker and seeker of East-West rapprochement. In December 1953 he received accolades for one such effort—a speech at the United Nations proposing that the nuclear powers make available raw materials for research on peaceful applications of atomic energy ("Atoms for Peace"). At still another level, fully concealed from public visibility, Eisenhower and his foreign policy associates periodically employed the CIA in covert Cold War operations, including another 1953 action, the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh's government in Iran, and the overthrow of the left-leaning government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954.
In December 1953, Eisenhower called a three-day White House conclave of Republican congressmen, at which he set forth and won agreement to a carefully worked out domestic program that the administration was to submit to the second session of the Eighty-third Congress. His first year had been one of consolidation, adjustment to power, and response to immediately pressing problems. But his second year in office, leading up to the midterm election, was slated as a time for policy making and the building of a Republican record.
By the midterm elections, Eisenhower, whose active campaigning appears to have held down the normal seat loss of an incumbent party in an off-year election, was in fact able to point to such legislative accomplishments as extension of the coverage of Social Security to a number of categories of citizens who did not have retirement benefits and authorization of construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. He could also take credit for the Atoms for Peace proposal and the Korean settlement. But the year was punctuated by major activities that had not been on his agenda in December 1953, including the matters of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and the Indochina crisis of 1954.
McCarthy, a political nonentity until 1950, had become almost instantaneously visible in February of that year, when he made the unfounded charge that he had a list of Communists who were presently on the State Department payroll, busily subverting the nation. In that period of preoccupation with internal subversion and with such international events as the Communist victory in China, the very extravagance of his rhetoric—made more newsworthy because President Truman was goaded into replying to him—earned the Wisconsin Republican substantial media attention. On this McCarthy built a grassroots following and became recognized within the Republican party as a figure who, if deeply irresponsible, was nevertheless a political asset.
McCarthy had felt free to allege that the Truman administration was permeated with Communists, oblivious to the negative effects of his unsubstantiated charges on the morale of the executive branch and the perception of the United States by other nations. But what would he do once his own party was in power? Eisenhower sought, with some initial success, to check McCarthy's freewheeling assaults on the loyalty of public servants—for example, by enlisting Taft to certify that McCarthy's claim that career foreign service officer Charles Bohlen was unsuited to be ambassador to the Soviet Union was groundless. Eisenhower also acted to remedy what he himself thought were failures in the government's procedures for screening employees, instituting a program that by extending the reasons for which civil servants could be discharged as security risks took its own toll on morale in the executive branch.
In short order, it became clear that McCarthy was not going to cease his assaults on the loyalty of federal employees and, by implication, on Eisenhower's stewardship of the government. There were widespread demands that Eisenhower reply to McCarthy, some of them from his close supporters. Eisenhower's view was that public mention of a demagogic politician by the president simply enhanced that politician's support. Instead, Eisenhower periodically criticized the kinds of tactics McCarthy employed, leaving it to the press to infer that he was alluding to the Wisconsin senator. Then, in the spring of 1954, when McCarthy overreached himself and allowed his aides to seek favors for a former staff member who had been inducted into the army, the Eisenhower administration orchestrated an oblique campaign against him.
Acting on the premise that presidential efforts to purge a legislator would backfire, Eisenhower worked behind the scenes to encourage the Senate itself to conduct hearings on McCarthy's actions. Carried live on television, the Army-McCarthy hearings contributed to McCarthy's decline in public support and his subsequent formal condemnation by the Senate. His colleagues began to ostracize him, and he soon became politically impotent. Because Eisenhower's contribution to McCarthy's demise was largely indirect and behind the scenes, his seeming inaction with respect to McCarthy helped reinforce the contemporary impression of Eisenhower's political passivity.
In 1954, Eisenhower circumvented a probable foreign affairs debacle through actions that did not become known in their full dimensions until the 1980s, when the relevant classified documents became available for analysis. In the first months of that year a debate raged within the Eisenhower administration about whether to use American military force to prevent the defeat of the French forces that were at war with the indigenous Communists in Indochina. By January 1954 the Communists had trapped the cream of the French defenders at an isolated military outpost in the hamlet of Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower feared that a Communist victory would lead to Communist triumphs in neighboring countries, which would succumb, as he put it, like a row of falling dominoes.
He recognized, nevertheless, that there were profound reasons why it would be perilous to use American military force in such an inhospitable environment, a course of action that was favored by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford, and by Vice President Nixon. In extensive meetings with his associates and members of Congress, Eisenhower established strict preconditions for intervention, including formation of a multinational coalition and a grant of immediate independence to the French colonies. When the preconditions could not be met, he concluded that direct American involvement in the Indochinese conflict would not be politically feasible. Rather than fight, he supported the partition of Vietnam into a Communist North and a non-Communist South Vietnam and provided foreign aid to the latter. He also fostered formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), designed to limit the expansion of Communist North Vietnam and China.
The year 1954 also saw Eisenhower win a major legislative struggle to prevent ratification of a constitutional amendment proposed by Senator John Bricker of Ohio that was designed to limit the president's powers in making international agreements. Success required great political skill, since Bricker had won over sixty-two senators as cosponsors— more than the necessary two-thirds of the Senate votes required for approval. Eisenhower's strategy was to refuse to acknowledge that his basic desires differed from Bricker's but to object persistently to any wording of the amendment that did not simply make the empty statement that no treaty could violate the Constitution. By converting the issue to one of semantics, he gave sponsors of the amendment a face-saving way to change their votes and cooperate with the extensive lobbying campaign his liaison staff conducted.